How Leitrim County Council gave away a prime site for just 100
The chairman of the charity which acquired the car park is now developing it. He denies any conflict of interest. By Marese McDonagh.
In recent weeks there has been a furious debate in Manorhamilton about the sale by Leitrim County Council of the 27-space car park in the centre of town for €100 to a registered charity known as the Manorhamilton Enterprise Forum.
The forum was set up in 2003 "to act as an enabling vehicle for the creation of new enterprise and the overall enhancement of the town's environment".
It sold the car park and adjoining land, known locally as the "Backlands", which it had also acquired, comprising 1.65 acres in total, to a local developer for €675,000.
The chairman of the forum at the time the car park was acquired and the entire site sold to developer Pat Slevin, was Finbarr Ryan, who owns two chemist shops in Manorhamilton.
Six months later, in April this year, Finbarr Ryan, having consulted with his fellow directors on the forum, set up a new company with Pat Slevin to develop the site. Currently they are the only two directors of Backland Developments, which will construct the €8m development comprising a civic square; 14 townhouses; retail and office units; a €900,000 one-stop-shop for Leitrim County Council; and underground and overground car parking, with 117 spaces in total.
Part of the agreement made between the forum and council was that 27 spaces would be reserved for the council.
Supporters of the project believe that the council's effective give-away of the car park was an astute move, as it will facilitate the regeneration of the commercial heart of the town. Noel Loughlin, project manager of the forum, pointed out that without the access provided by the car park, the rest of the site would be effectively land-locked and the entire development would be blocked.
Local community activist Gabriel McSharry is insistent that the sale of the car park for €100 was a "scandal" and he has called for a public inquiry into the affair.
The development was always a controversial one – over 200 locals signed a petition opposing it when it was appealed to An Bord Pleanála.
Finbar Ryan's role, which is only now emerging, is certain to fuel the debate which continues to rage in the north Leitrim town.
He was adamant this week that there was no conflict of interest and he would not accept that his role "looked bad". He said, "At that point [April 2006], the Enterprise Forum had no further interest or involvement in the site."
Finbarr Ryan added that in order to ensure that the forum was not put in an embarrassing situation "even though I believed there was no problem", he consulted his colleagues on the board before accepting Mr Slevin's invitation to come on board. After consulting its legal advisers, the forum informed him that there was no conflict of interest.
Finbarr Ryan, who was not on the forum sub-committee which handled the sale of the site, has resigned as chairman of the forum but remains as one of its 10 directors.
He confirmed to Village that he has in the past been involved in other ventures with Pat Slevin, but would not elaborate. "I do not think it is relevant," he said.
He also pointed out that while initially there had been six expressions of interest in the project, after planning permission was granted only one tender had been received, which he said countered the argument that the site was a steal for the developer.
Community activist Pat Love, who runs the Manorhamilton-based North Leitrim Mens' Group and is chairman of the County Community Forum, says he is genuinely puzzled at local opposition to the project and concerns about the sale of the car park at Church Lane for such a tiny sum.
"Manorhamilton has lost nothing but it has gained a lot," he insisted. "It will get a new town centre as this development is effectively a new street linking up to the existing main street. It is also getting a new state-of-the-art car park. It will get jobs and new shops which are badly needed."
Noel Loughlin said a major project was needed to ensure the survival of the commercial heart of the town and he pointed out that the Backlands had been identified in the Manorhamilton Framework Strategy as a suitable location for development.
"The main street of the town had died on its feet," he said. "The forum was set up because of our concerns that Manorhamilton would become a satellite town for commuters to Sligo and Enniskillen."